Knossos – even the name conjures up images of mythical Greek monsters and legendary heroes. This incredible site in Heraklion, Crete is the location of what is possibly Europe’s most ancient city; it is also a sprawling complex, the largest Bronze Age site on the island. It is easy to imagine, as you stand under the beating Mediterranean sun, how the city might have looked and sounded – the sounds of the theatre, the workings of grain mills and wine presses, the colourful frescoes and magnificent columns. Knossos was the centre of the Minoan civilisation – a rich, successful civilisation founded on trading wealth. Not just traders, the Minoans were savvy politicians and talented artists – besides their glorious buildings, they left pottery, frescoes and much more.
And Knossos was the jewel, the beating heart, the core of all this activity and culture. The palace dates from the Bronze Age, though the site was occupied many thousands of years before in the Neolithic period. Around 1900 BC the complex was built, a grand scheme that includes not just a palace for a royal family, but also various civic and religious buildings. Around a central court on Kephala Hill, the city began to take form. What you see today is the result of centuries of building work, with those structures built in later years the most obvious.
The great palace itself has 1300 rooms, connected by a labyrinthine network of corridors. The palace covers an area of six acres and includes a theatre, workshops and many huge storerooms, where provisions including olive oil, grains and dried fish would have been stored. The palace complex had a sophisticated water distribution system, with fresh water drawn up from springs at nearby Archanes via aqueducts and circulated through terracotta pipes. There was a closed sewerage system and a ventilation system of air shafts.
But Knossos was not just sophisticated in its technological advancement. It was also grand in its architecture and art. Beautiful fresco murals made from natural pigments and depicting mythological stories and scenes, together with natural flora and fauna, covered the walls. Ceramics were highly styled and intricately decorated. The impressive columns were constructed from cypress trees and placed on stone bases.
At the centre of the palace is the Throne Room. Here you can see the alabaster throne, together with benches made from gypsum and a ceremonial basin. The room may have been used by the king and queen for religious and ceremonial purposes, though another theory suggests that it was reserved for a goddess, either in statue or human (priestess) form.
Religion was an integral part of the Minoan civilisation, and Knossos is steeped in the mythological world. Legend has it that it was here that King Minos lived; it was here that Minos had an elaborate labyrinth built to hold his son, the Minotaur. In Greek mythology, the Minotaur, that monstrous creature that is half-man and half-bull, was killed by the hero Theseus; Theseus, aided by the king’s daughter Ariadne, used a ball of thread to find his way back out of the labyrinth, and afterwards they both fled the city.
Knossos is also the site of several violent events, including earthquakes, invasions and the enormous volcanic eruption of Thera. Each time the city was struck, it was rebuilt and repaired, until finally it was abandoned. Many structures and tablets were preserved and the site was excavated and largely restored in 1900 by a British archaeologist, Arthur Evans.
With readily available car hire in Crete, Knossos is a must see. Conveniently located just two miles south of Heraklion, avoid the tour groups and make your way there independently. It is easy to find – just look out for signs on the east side of the road. Making your way out of the labyrinth, however, may be more difficult…